US Threat Report: Washington facing ‘critical years’ in Great Power competition

Unlike in previous years, the 2023 annual US Threat Assessment Report views West Asia through the prism of a Great Power competition that threatens to nudge the world into a post-US multipolar order.

On 8 March, 2023, the US Director of National Intelligence released the Annual Threat Assessment Report, which evaluates worldwide threats to US national security, including cyber and technological threats, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, crime, environmental, and natural resources issues.

The report highlights the challenges Washington faces in the rapidly devolving US-led global order, with China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea identified as the most significant security challenges for western allies in the coming year.

“Strategic competition between the United States and its allies, China, and Russia over what kind of world will emerge makes the next few years critical to determining who and what will shape” the new world order.

China as the top threat

Unsurprisingly, the report identifies China as the top US threat due to its efforts to undermine US influence worldwide, create differences between Washington and its allies, and annex Taiwan. The recent success of China in facilitating a reconciliation agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia illustrates Beijing’s growing role in West Asia and the world, and signals a shift in the post-WW2 global balance of power.

US academic and Foreign Policy columnist Stephen M. Walt describes the detente between Riyadh and Tehran as a “wake-up call” for the US foreign-policy establishment. He notes how “China is attempting to present itself as a force for peace in the world, a mantle that the United States has largely abandoned in recent years.”

The threat report reflects US fears of China’s increasing influence, which is mirrored in its latest national security strategy and in countless speeches of US officials over the past decade.

However, what’s new and different is the time frame for decisive action: The US faces a “critical few years” in this Great Power conflict, warns the report. The space for Washington to define the rules of the emerging global multipolar order – on which rising powers, middle states, and the Global South are heavily betting – is rapidly shrinking.

The report also suggests that China will continue to work in 2023 to become the most prominent power in East Asia and a superpower on the international scene. This has led to a race among states to diversify their foreign relations in order to optimize their national interests, mostly to the detriment of a US-led unipolar order.

China’s growing presence in West Asia

West Asia’s geographical and economic importance makes it a primary battleground for conflict between Washington and its rivals, particularly China. For years, Beijing has pursued the soft power strategy of infiltrating the region through trade and investment deals that do not directly provoke the US, but have slowly loosened Washington’s historic clutches on West Asia.

In 2015, only two West Asian and North African countries had joined China’s ambitious multi-continent Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). By 2018, the number had risen to ten.

General Michael Kurilla, commander of the US military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) – whose area of operation encompasses 21 countries from North Africa to West, Central, and South Asia – highlighted in a Senate hearing on 16 March, 2023, that “19 out of 21 CENTCOM countries have signed the Belt and Road Initiative with China,” and warned that “we are in a race to integrate with our partners before China can fully penetrate the region.”

Furthermore, the report claims that China is developing its military capabilities and expanding its presence worldwide, building military facilities abroad and entering into agreements with countries – activities that are viewed as a threat to US global interests.

A study by the US military-aligned Rand Corporation claims that 19 countries around the world may be potential future hosts for Chinese military bases, including seven in West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region: Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Morocco, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.

As China strengthens its presence in these areas, promoting its global economic model of “peaceful modernization,” the number of regional “swing” states is increasing at Washington’s expense. It is natural for US allies in West Asia to seek diversification in their foreign relations and gain leverage from the US-Chinese conflict to advance their national interests, as the UAE, Turkiye, and, more recently, Saudi Arabia, have done.

The Russia-NATO confrontation

The US Threat Assessment Report confirms that Russia does not want the current conflict in Ukraine to escalate into a direct military conflict with the US and NATO. However, this does not rule out the possibility of confrontation. Intelligence suggests that Russia will continue to pursue its interests in competitive and sometimes confrontational and provocative ways, including the use of military force.

As a result, there is no guarantee that Russian-western competition will not lead to confrontation, despite both sides’ desire to avoid it. Moreover, direct confrontation may become necessary in the future if one party believes that the fight has become existential to its interests.

For example, in the unlikely event Russia is defeated in the Ukraine war, the expansion of the conflict may become a necessity, as President Vladimir Putin has observed: “The war in Ukraine is existential for us,” asking “What is the value of a world without Russia?”

Russia’s presence in West Asia

The report indicates that Moscow will continue its efforts to increase its influence in the WANA region, attempting to undermine Washington’s primacy and presenting itself as an indispensable mediator and security partner for these states.

More than a year since the onset of the Ukraine war, the west has discovered that a more independently-inclined Global South was a major reason for its policy failure to isolate Russia, and now preaches the need to re-craft western strategies with these states. Far from becoming mired in the Ukraine conflict, Russia has announced that it will increase its interactions – trade and political – with this global bloc of developing countries.

The report indicates that the growth of Russian-Iranian relations and the strategic relations between Moscow and Beijing – driven by a shared vision that the US threatens their interests – will lead to more economic, defense, and political cooperation against Washington’s hegemonic ambitions.

Iran’s regional role in countering US influence

The report predicts that in 2023, Iran will continue to work toward reducing US influence in West Asia – from the Persian Gulf to the Levant – and that, this time, it will not act alone. Instead, the perceived Iranian threat is part of the larger competition between China, Russia and Iran to challenge the current world order and decouple from the US-led system.

The intelligence assessment also highlights Iran’s missile program as a key threat, as the Islamic Republic not only boasts the region’s largest arsenal of ballistic missiles, but produces them domestically and at extremely low cost.

Tehran’s focus is on improving the accuracy, lethality, and reliability of its missiles, and it is likely to acquire new conventional weapon systems such as advanced fighter aircraft, trainer aircraft, helicopters, air defense systems, para-naval patrol ships, and main battle tanks. This is due to Tehran’s deepening military ties with Moscow, which may lead to Iran obtaining Russian SU-35 fighter jets. Three days after the US Threat Assessment Report was released, Iranian media announced that the purchase deal had been finalized with Moscow.

Furthermore, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has made Russia more reliant on its allies and partners around the world, presenting an opportunity for Iran to advance its interests in the region and grow its strategic depth.

West Asia’s importance to the US

According to the report, if Iran does not receive relief from western sanctions, its officials are likely to consider further increasing uranium enrichment up to 90 percent, which Washington will try to prevent by potentially renewing the nuclear deal abandoned by US President Donald Trump in 2018.

The report emphasized that return to full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) requires sanctions relief, Washington’s adherence to its obligations, and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) closure of investigations related to safeguards in three undisclosed nuclear sites. This raises the possibility of a nuclear agreement between the US and Iran this year.

Last year, the 2022 US Threat Assessment Report analyzed the West Asian region under five key headings: Russia, Iran, migration due to regional conflicts, global terrorism, and conflicts and instability. It devoted a paragraph to explaining how conflicts in the region pose a threat to US interests.

However, the 2023 report only briefly addresses the region under three headings: Russia, Iran, and global terrorism. The current assessment views the region almost entirely through the prism of US competition with China, Russia, and Iran – in stark contrast to the previous report, which attached importance to the region’s conditions and conflicts that directly impact US interests.

Great powers in a multipolar world

This difference in perspective does not indicate a decline in the region’s importance to Washington, but rather, that Great Power competition defines the US presence in the region today.

The current assessment places greater emphasis on competition with rising powers to define the shape and establish the rules of the new world order – and considers the next few years to be vital in preventing the emergence of a world order that does not secure US interests.

Undoubtedly, the competition among great powers is the key factor shaping Washington’s perception of global threats today. The challenge facing the US is that the pace of change is accelerating, and rising powers are increasingly cooperating with each other at all levels to counterbalance US clout.

Consequently, the 2023 assessment warns that Washington has entered a critical period that will necessitate a gradual escalation against any entity seeking to shape and impose these global shifts. It is clear that the US is aware of the pressing need to act fast and decisively to safeguard its interests and secure its place in the emerging multipolar landscape.

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